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Bo 5782: American Jews or Jewish Americans?

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! About twenty years ago I accompanied a very close friend on his first real trip to Israel. I say “real trip” because I do not believe being taken to Israel as a child and having some vague memories of making the requisite stop at the Wailing Wall, climbing Masada at dawn, and visiting the beach in Eilat qualify as a proper Israel experience.

For the most part, a typical trip to Israel is usually one that is designed for tourists, one that checks off all the “attractions” in the Land of Israel (and there are many). But the Holy Land also offers a much more meaningful experience; the potential for a deep dive exploration into three thousand years of Jewish history that can transform how an individual relates to his own Judaism. You will probably not be surprised to learn that I planned the latter sort of trip for my friend, not the former.

I felt confident in my tour guide credentials: Having lived in Jerusalem until the age of nine my first spoken language is Hebrew and my accent is pretty legit – as long as the conversation doesn’t require words that aren’t commonly found in a nine year old’s vocabulary. Though, to be perfectly honest, speaking Hebrew as an Israeli only has a few benefits – the most prominent being that you don’t “get taken for a ride” by taxi drivers.

Much more importantly, my parents had imbued in me a deep love for the history and spirituality of the Holy Land. Growing up there I felt deeply connected to Israel and it was this unique view that I wished to put on display for my friend. I hoped that by gaining a new perspective on the history and depth of Judaism he would become more connected with his faith.

My friend invited along Mark, a very successful business associate of his who identified as a Jew in name only and had never been to Israel.

We spent about a week exploring the Holy Land: celebrating Shabbat in the Old City of Jerusalem, attending a Hasidic master’s gathering of thousands of adherents singing in an absolutely pitch dark hall, praying at sunrise services at the Wailing Wall, exploring the ruins of the Holy Temple, visiting the tombs of the Patriarchs, and traveling to the cities where our sages from Talmudic times lived (and are buried) – it was quite a trip.

At one point, I was sitting next to Mark in a cab riding on a highway somewhere between the mystical city of Safed and the remains of the ancient village of Katzrin. Mark looked at me and said, “Rabbi can I ask you a question?” I nodded.

"So, you grew up here in Israel and Judaism is clearly imbedded in your soul.” I nodded again.

"But you spent the vast majority of your life in America and most of your family lives there. In fact, as you mentioned, your family has actually been there for four generations following the horrific pogroms of late 19th century Russia.”

"So tell me, where do your loyalties truly lie – with the State of Israel, because you grew up here and are a committed Jew, or with America, a country that has given you and your family a home, a safe haven, and an opportunity to make a life for yourselves?”

His question stunned me speechless (an occurrence that my wife of many decades is still pining to experience). His thoughtful (and quite difficult) question suddenly brought to the fore something that I had never really considered.

After a few moments of internal deliberation, I answered, “I have incredible gratitude to America – to the point that if I was called upon to defend her with my life I would wholeheartedly do so. I feel that being willing to give your life for your country is a sign of true loyalty.”

"But," I continued, “I am a Jew, and ultimately my loyalties lie with the Jewish people and our destiny. The ultimate destiny of the Jewish people is inextricably tied to the Holy Land as it is the only true ancestral and future home of our people.” This sudden recognition of how I self-defined who I was and what I ultimately cared about was an illuminating experience for me.

In this week's Torah portion we see a very similar struggle raging within the hearts and minds of a very young Jewish nation.

“[…] at midnight the Almighty struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon” (12:29).

The great medieval Biblical commentator Rashi (ad loc) wonders why the firstborn sons of the captives were also killed. After all, they weren’t even citizens of Egypt and had nothing to do with the enslavement of the Jewish people.

Rashi offers two approaches, one of which is that the captives rejoiced that the Jews were being enslaved and abused and they would have happily participated had they been given an opportunity. This is akin to the Nazi soldiers who claimed to only be “following orders,” but in many pictures they can be seen laughing and jeering while terrorizing and abusing the German and Polish Jewish populace.

The fact that Rashi has to explain why the first born children of the captives were included in the plague indicates that otherwise the first born children of the captives would not have died.

This is difficult to understand. Moses specifically instructed the Jewish people to put the blood of the Paschal lamb on the door posts of their homes so that they would be protected and not fall victim to the tenth plague. Moses is therefore informing them that the first born sons of the Jewish nation would also die unless there was blood on the door posts.

How is it possible that Jews would be more susceptible to the plague than the children of the captives being held in the Egyptian dungeons?

There seems to be only one possible explanation: there was no decree of death from the plague on foreigners – the tenth plague was only a decree on the Egyptians. That is why the children of the captives would have been excluded. But still, why were the children of the Jewish nation susceptible to this last plague?

From here we can learn a remarkable lesson about human nature and gain insight into the quandary of self-definition facing the newly formed Jewish nation.

The tenth plague culminated a year in which the Jewish people were relieved of their enslavement (slavery ended once the plagues began) and, according to our sages, they had even started to accumulate wealth. Because they weren’t affected by the plagues, the Jewish people had new economic opportunities: they sold water during the plague of blood, their livestock were not affected by the pestilence, their crops were not destroyed by the hail, etc. They were no longer perceived as the downtrodden class; rather, they became a critical element in Egyptian socio-economics. Their circumstances changed dramatically for the better.

Suddenly, many Jews began to feel like privileged Egyptian citizens and they were faced with the quandary of self-definition – are we Jews living in Egypt or rather Egyptians of Jewish descent?

According to our sages, up to 80% of the Jews died during the plague of darkness (see Rashi 13:18), seemingly because they wouldn’t have left Egypt even if given the opportunity to do so. In a very short time, the Jewish people began to feel that they had finally “made it” and were now members of the upper echelons of Egyptian society. Many preferred to self-identify as Egyptians, albeit of Jewish descent.

This is why the Jewish people were included in the tenth plague – it was a plague decreed on the Egyptian people and many Jews were vacillating between whether they considered themselves Jews first or Egyptians first. The tenth plague came to differentiate between the Jews and the Egyptians. Those Jews who felt they were Egyptian citizens first were judged as Egyptians.

Moses gave the people the sign of how to define themselves: If you’re an Egyptian Jew put the blood of the Paschal lamb on the doorpost and proudly declare “I am a Jew.” Those who were merely Jewish Egyptians met the same fate as the Egyptians. It is no coincidence, of course, that we place mezuzahs on the same place (as the blood of the Paschal lamb) to declare that the home is inhabited by Jews who are proud to be members of the Jewish nation.

Unfortunately, nowadays the percentage of Jews who would choose to stay in America, given similar circumstances, might be even higher. If history has taught the Jewish people anything at all it should have taught us that, try as we might to blend into a host nation, they will always consider us Jews first and citizens of the state second. From ancient civilizations all the way to 20th century Europe – they have made their opinion of us very clear. We must internalize this message and understand who we really are and where our allegiances must ultimately lie.

Torah Portion of the Week

Bo, Exodus 10:1 - 13:16

This week we conclude the ten plagues with the plagues of locusts, darkness, and the death of the first-born. The laws of Passover are presented, followed by the commandment to wear tefillin, consecrate the first-born animal, and redeem one’s first born son. The Torah tells us that, at some time in the future, your son will ask you about these commandments and you will answer: “With a show of power, God brought us out of Egypt, the place of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us leave, God killed all the first-born in Egypt, man and beast alike. I, therefore, offer to God all male first-born (animals) and redeem all the first-born of sons. And it shall be a sign upon your arm, and an ornament between your eyes (tefillin), for with a strong hand the Almighty removed us from Egypt” (Exodus 13:15).

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“Be careful who you pretend to be –
you might forget who you really are.”

 
Sponsored in Honor of the Clergy of Temple Beth Shalom of Miami Beach
 



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